An Adversity Metaphor

Over-parenting seems selfless on the surface



A young boy in my neighborhood walked up to me, spotting something in my hand.

“What’s that?” he asked. William was a mixed-race child with handsome features. He was fatherless, so I once helped him fix his trainer bike.

“It’s a chrysalis, I told him. “Soon the shell will split open and a butterfly will come out.”

“Can I have it?”

“Yes, but you must promise me that when the chrysalis splits and the butterfly is beating its wings to escape, you won’t help it get out. Promise?”

The boy nodded, took the cocoon, went home, and watched. Later he told me that he saw it begin to vibrate, move, and quiver. At last it split and he saw inside a yellow butterfly, frantically beating its wings to get out.

“The butterfly couldn’t get free,” he wept. “So I pulled the halves apart and the butterfly sprang out. It tried to fly but fell to the ground, flapped its wings a while, then stopped moving. Still weeping, he opened his hand to show me the remains.

“Ah, William, you disobeyed and opened the chrysalis, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I did.”

“You see, the only way it can strengthen its wings is by pushing them against the chrysalis, so its muscles will grow. When you helped it the way you did, you prevented it from getting strong enough to fly. That’s why the butterfly fell to the ground and died.”


Doing the work meant for your children’s development, and fulfilling their every desire, weakens their psychological “muscles” to resolve real life problems, take responsibility for their actions, and become decent, productive people. It takes careful discernment to know when to help a child.

Middle- and upper-class parents claim they do things — make excuses for truancy, wink at a bullying personality, phone the dorm every night — to protect their kids, but there’s the rub. Indiscriminately protecting them from everyday challenges in life weakens them. The surprising irony of such over-solicitous parenting is that it lessens a child’s chances for success in life. It tends to weaken resolve, dampen resilience, shred self-esteem, and diminish their desire to do things on their own.

Over-parenting seems selfless on the surface but can become a deceptive, subtle substitute for the spiritual goal of eternal life. Transforming parental consciousness from too much superficial doting to a focus on God takes serious self-examination.

Talk to any successful person and find struggle and failure in his or her past. Billionaires who never finished college abound. My father struggled from poverty in an East Boston Italian ghetto where the Irish kids fought the Italians for dumpster scraps. He had to learn to defend himself and land a few stiff punches in alley fights. His teacher told him he would never amount to anything. But sixty years later, holding only a high school vocational diploma, the Chamber of Commerce elected him Businessman of the Year.

When I embarked on my ten-year Christian pilgrimage, penniless and aiming to become a Trappist monk, my anti-religious parents wisely didn’t interfere. They knew from their own harsh struggles through the Great Depression that children have to experience many hardships to wake up and get back on track. I felt the hunger pangs, the cold sleepless nights alone, the sting of my mistakes. I had to struggle, fail, and fall on my knees with earnest prayer as the going got rough. Frightened by near-death events, I was sorely tempted to phone my parents for help. I knew they would have rushed to my rescue. But by God’s grace, I refused to do so and did not turn back (cf. Luke 9:62).

Adversity can strengthen a child whose frequent failures are faltering steps on the road to success. Obstacles motivate a change in direction or strategy when every previous attempt has failed. It’s when things aren’t going well that tactical evaluation and discernment kick in. That didn’t work well, so maybe I’ll try something different next time. Trial and error is the essence of natural evolution and child development. A child’s every wish should not become a parent’s every command. Don’t always give in and rush to fix petty predicaments. That may weaken emergent wings and make it harder ― even impossible ― for them to fly.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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